TBV Insights

Use this narrative formula to tell your video story

Kurt Vonnegut famously diagrammed the “shapes” of the what he identified as the mere handful of plots that underlie all stories. But the plot of a story — boy-meets-girl, man-gets-out-of-hole, whatever — is not what holds your attention. What keeps you going is the narrative, the tense, interesting moments come at you one-by-one.  So, how do you shape narrative in a video story?

A-B-T = And-But-Therefore

Randy Olson makes a good case for the three-point formula he calls “A-B-T (And-But-Therefore). Olson, a marine biologist, developed his ideas to help scientists explain their research to a broader audience. Olson maintains that every story can be boiled down to this A-B-T structure. The story begins with a situation — “it’s this that, and the other.”  Then there’s tension — “but there’s a problem.”   “Therefore,  the solution must be ____,” and that’s our story.”

The key to the whole thing is the tension that drives the narrative, which is signaled by the word but. The scientifically inclined Olson posits a narrative index — the number of times but occurs in the story, divided by the occurrences of and. The higher the but/and ratio, the more tension, the stronger the narrative.

Olson has calculated the narrative index of numerous texts, including in political debates going back Lincoln-Douglas. Among the surprising findings: Donald Trump has used the word “but” more than any politician in history in debates — “narrative index” of his “story” is very high, though, as a storyteller, he’s no Reagan. “Reagan . . . knew how to present stories with all their warmth, humor and emotion. His stories were always about problems. Trump doesn’t give much of a crap about the warmth, humor or emotion. He’s mostly just about problem-solution, over and over again, all day long.” Seems to work.

Implications for a technology solution video story

Technology solution videos typically try to tell viewers why the solution might matter to them. The typical video begins by describing a few typical problems at the start, then goes on to present features that address these problems. Olson’s A-B-T method suggests that the video could be made more engaging by iterating over problem-solution loops, instead. “X is inexpensive and it can be effective, but it risks Y, therefore our solution does Z.” It’s a simple, but endlessly flexible, formula. We plan to give it a try.


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